(NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data from the NASA EO-1 team, archived on the USGS Earth Explorer.)

Almost all who encounter Everest are awed by it. As the tallest mountain in the world, Everest is the standard to which all other mountains are compared. In Tibetan, the mountain is called Chomolungma, meaning “goddess mother of the snows.” The Nepalese name is Sagarmatha, “mother of the universe.”

Glaciers have chiseled Mount Everest’s summit into a huge, triangular pyramid defined by three faces and three ridges that extend to the northeast, southeast, and northwest. The southeastern ridge is the most widely used climbing route. It is the route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay followed in May 1953 when they became the first climbers to reach the summit and return safely.

Climbers who follow this route begin by trekking past Khumbu glacier and through the Khumbu ice fall, an extremely dangerous area where ice tumbles off the mountain into a chaotic waterfall of ice towers and crevasses. Next, climbers reach a bowl-shaped valley—a cirque—called the Western Cwm (pronounced coom) to the foot of the Lhotse Face, a 1,125-meter (3,691-foot) wall of ice. Climbing up the Lhotse face leads to the South Col, the low point in the ridge that connects Everest to Lhotse. It is from the South Col that most expeditions launch their final assault on the summit, following a route up the southeastern ridge.

Some climbers opt for the northern ridge, which is known for having harsher winds and colder temperatures. The northern ridge is the path that British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine used in 1924 during what may, in fact, have been the first ascent. Whether the pair made it to the summit remains a topic of controversy, but what is known for certain is that the men were spotted pushing toward the summit just before the arrival of a storm. Mallory’s corpse was discovered near the northeast ridge at 8,160 meters (26,772 feet) by an American climber in 1999, but it still isn’t clear whether he reached the summit.

Despite its reputation as an extremely dangerous mountain, commercial guiding has done much to tame Everest in the last few decades. As of March 2012, there had been 5,656 successful ascents of Everest, while 223 people had died—a fatality rate of just 4 percent.